November 30th, 2023

5 Reasons Your Prototyping and Experimentation is Failing

Learn how to unlock more impactful innovation.

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A Fundraising Director advocated in our recent Future of Charity Report, “innovation needs to sit at the front and centre of any charity’s strategy.”

With a fundamental need to unlock the potential of innovation, it can be a truly frustrating process when it doesn’t seem to be fulfilling the opportunity it presents. 

But why isn’t it?

You’ve got a great team, you’re following a best-in-class innovation process and coming up with brilliant ideas. But they never make it to market, or when they do get there, too many of them flop.

You’re not alone. Of course an element of failure comes with the territory. But if you find that you’re failing a little too often, it’s worth questioning why.

The weird sibling

Typical approaches to insight and idea generation are actually quite good. But our clients generally struggle with everything that comes next. 

Prototyping is almost the weird little sibling of the innovation family, the extrovert, jazz-handed and showy one. The one that no one fully understands. They get ignored.

But ignore them and you risk a repetitive cycle of ideas that just don’t move forward. Prototyping and experimentation have to be so much more than product mock-ups, shiny landing pages and smokescreen tests. A formulaic half-hearted approach to experimentation and prototyping can be a huge barrier to successful and impactful innovation. 

Having worked on hundreds of innovation projects across the sector, we’ve defined the 5 biggest reasons we see experimentation and prototyping fail. We’ve created a free Experiment Picker Tool, which can help you pick the right experiment for your idea and address some of the biggest pitfalls we’ve seen.

Reason 1: Not prioritising it as a fundamental part of the process

We’re not going to fully blame the design thinking ‘Double Diamond’ here, but it certainly hasn’t helped. This foundational innovation framework massively underplays the importance of prototyping. 

What can you do…

  1. Actually do it - Don’t skip the prototyping stage and jump to a build.

  2. Really think about it - Be purposeful about what you experiment with and how

  3. Dedicate resources - Allow for more budget, time, headspace and human resource 

Reason 2: Answering the wrong question

What information does your prototype give you? And what could have been collected? The objective of this stage shouldn’t be simply ‘building the idea’. Stay laser-focused on building the confidence and evidence you need to continue evolving and investing in the idea.

What can you do…

  1. Assumption mapping - Map all of the biggest questions and assumptions.

  2. Define an experimentation strategy - Prioritise your long list of questions and assumptions (those that will make or break the idea). Define a plan for how you’ll answer the questions.

  3. Use our handy Experiment Picker Tool - It’s designed to help you think through the most important questions and pick the right experiment, test or prototype.

Reason 3: There’s no one size fits all

Many innovators don’t have the toolkit to break out of a standard approach. User testing, a smokescreen test and then, the resulting business case. Ideas follow the same format whatever the questions and assumptions.

But armed with the right question you can hand-pick from a mega-menu of tests, tools, experiments and prototypes to better answer your questions. 

What can you do…

  1. Learn what’s actually possible -Test different tools such as Figma for building digital prototypes or UsabilityHub for early-stage user testing. 

  2. Build more than one experiment - Use clusters of experiments at any one time to explore different assumptions. Every time you test an idea, use a totally new combination of tools and techniques.

  3. Use our Experiment Picker Tool - This will suggest a range of potential experiments that you might not have thought about.

Reason 4: An unhealthy obsession with business cases

The ironic, yet very frustrating reality of business cases is that working towards such a pre-defined, rigid approach and output actually maximises not minimises risk. By asking for a pre-defined ‘proof of concept’, you gather the data your template asks for, rather than the data you actually need to learn, improve and build confidence in the idea.

What can you do…

  1. Flex within stage gates - Agree to stage gates.  They give leadership a greater sense of control and an option to ‘tap out’. Demand flexibility between them for output and outcomes.

  2. Redefine the business case - Lower the threshold for proof of concept, shifting away from ‘proof’ to ‘potential’. Challenge 5Y income projections that won’t prove your chances of success. 

  3. Influence leadership - Convince leadership of the value of doing things differently.  Find allies who can help you build credibility, stay close to those who need more convincing and build consensus in the need for change.

Reason 5: Culture (as always) eats everything else for breakfast

Perhaps the most impactful and probably the trickiest to change (but not impossible) is the culture in which your ideas pass through.  Experimentation and prototyping should be inherently rapid, iterative, agile and uncertain. But this conflicts with some organisations’ working norms. But equipped with buy-in from the right stakeholders, a compelling vision and eventually, some proof points, you can start shifting the culture to one that embraces and celebrates experimentation. 

What can you do…

  1. Identify the symptoms - Identify the moments, methodologies, behaviour, people or processes that are perpetuating the wrong culture.

  2. Co-create the treatment - To make changes to the way people work, interact, think and behave, those same people need to feel it’s coming from them.

  3. Prioritise it properly - You could and should run whole work streams or projects to shift culture. 

So, that’s it. If any (or all) of the above sounds suspiciously familiar, fear not. If you can overcome these common pitfalls in experimentation, it could help you get more to market, more successfully and fail less (...often).